Desensitization & Counter Conditioning

Have you ever taken your dog for a walk and found him snarling or barking at a noisy moving thing like a bicycle? Or lunging at others such as the security guard in a uniform or even another animal like a cat or squirrel?  Does he shake or take cover under a table or chair when a drilling sound or thunder is heard? Well, it’s not unusual. He is just displaying fear, anxiety or aggression — basically, any emotion that involves excitement.

Let’s go to the reasons why this maybe happening- your pet fears that particular noise or object and so a negative association has been set in. So, when we say Desensitization we are basically talking about reducing or removing the fear and therefore lessening the anxiety and teaching the pet not to react

There are two main goals here. First, to make your pet less sensitive towards the thing he fears. And second, to teach your pet to have a pleasant response towards it so that he is least bothered by that thing.

What we are looking at primarily is SDCC – Systematic Desensitization and Counter Conditioning – process and here we will understand the term better

Systematic Desensitization

Desensitisation is the gradual exposure to a an environment/ situation which brings about an undesirable behaviour- a growl, a bark, a change in body language, but at such a low level, that we don’t take it all the way to a negative response. We start by noting down the things or events that your dog fears including the attributes which might be causing the fear such as the way it moves, sounds, looks, smells etc. Judging by your dog’s reactions, we rank the attributes in order from the least to the most threatening.

This is a process wherein, we identify the trigger as per how it affects the dog. Once the triggers are identified, we rank them from low to high to be able to figure out what we need to work on from a priority point of view.

Dogs react in different ways to their triggers. For instance, your dog might put its tail between its legs, bark, run away, or whimper in fear. It might react aggressively to certain stimuli, for instance by barking, lowering its head, or bristling the hair on its back.

Start with the trigger that is least stressful and expose your dog to the trigger every day for 5 minutes. Increase the trigger exposure week on week and get your dog to learn to react less every time there is an exposure

This time goes on increasing week on week. The trigger exposure (time) goes up gradually till such time that your pet stops reacting to the trigger and a comfortable body language is maintained thru the entire exposure.

The key to effective desensitisation is to be able to find that threshold. That is the point where the pet starts displaying fear/anxiety. This threshold is what we are working with.

Counter Conditioning

It largely means changing the pets emotional response. In lay man terms, it’s a technique where in a pet is taught, using positive reinforcement- based rewards, to replace the unwanted/undesirable behaviour with the one that is desirable. Positive pairing and reinforcements are focussed on, to be able to treat fear & anxiety over a certain object/environment

Desensitization and Counter Conditioning are largely used together as one works towards identifying and neutralizing a response and the other works towards changing the existing response to a positive one.

Reach out to certified Dog Behaviourists or Trainers to get a plan can help you with making such a plan and, guide you through the steps and help curtail plateaus or setbacks that come up during the process.

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Shalaka Mundada is the owner of PetSitters, a premium pet boarding facility in Pune, India.

Founded in 2008, PetSitters largely works in the field of Dog kenneling, Pre-Pet Consultations, Pet events and Dog Behavior Modification Programs. Shalaka is a certified Trainer and Behaviourist and Dog Aggression from John Rogerson’s Northern Centre for Canine Behaviour, UK and also a Kennel Management Course from Shirin Merchant Canine Can Care, Mumbai.